France stood at a standstill on Sunday evening as Emanuel Macron faced far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the battle for another term of presidency. As ballots were being counted, the possibility that Le Pen could take the presidency started to become real.
Although Macron eventually won with the popular vote of 58.5 per cent, Le Pen’s vote share of 41.5 per cent was an increase from her previous presidential run-off in 2017, proving how compelling her far-right views have become in France. The daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the Front National party, Le Pen envisioned policies that would bring back the “France of the forgotten,” by curbing immigration and prioritising French citizens for housing, jobs and social security.
But although Macron’s victory may seem like a win in terms of curbing the rise of the far-right in France, ahead of the final results, many French Muslims begrudgingly supported him because, to them, the election was simply “a choice between Islamophobia and Islamophobia.”
Macron’s presidency has undoubtedly contributed to rampant Islamophobia in the country, ironically leading to Le Pen’s rise. For instance, in 2020, Islamophobic attacks in France were said to have increased by 53%, as a result of his anti-Islamic policies: 22 mosques across France have been closed down over the past 18 months and, last year, a law was proposed to ban minors from wearing the hijab in public. This vilification of the Muslim community has been under the false banner of encouraging “secularism”.
THE FACE caught up with three young Muslims from France post-election, to find out the impact it has had on them and what they foresee for the future with another Macron presidential term.
Sarah is a 32-year-old French Algerian based in the suburbs of Paris, who volunteered to count the paper ballots in the evening before breaking her fast for Ramadan.
“These past two weeks have been extremely tense for many French Muslims. After five years of Macron, France is a deeply divided country. Most people voted for Macron reluctantly to defeat Le Pen. I was of course relieved that Macron won over Le Pen, but at the same time, it cannot be an authentic and democratic victory for him. Many people have been extremely disappointed by his policies over the past five years and only voted for him out of fear of the chaos of the far-right.
The far-right ideology represented by Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour has gained so much popularity over the past decades – Le Pen’s views are becoming more and more normalised. She’s been working hard since around 2007 to polish the image of her party, by taking distance from her father who represents a more repulsive figure for most people, notably for his anti-Semitic speech. On the other hand, most of her political opponents prefer to have her as an opponent, as it gives them certainty they will win against her. The drawback is that this strategy ends up affecting their credibility and increases divisions in the country.
I am not very optimistic [about the future] to be honest, but I do believe it is highly necessary that Macron seriously tackles the huge political mistrust and tensions in our society. Political mistrust, social inequalities and the far-right ideology urgently need to be tackled, or the whole country will face serious challenges, not only Muslims. I sincerely hope President Macron takes this emergency into account and rethinks his way of governing.”
Mariam, who’s of French-Moroccan descent and grew up near Bordeaux, is a 28-year old manager in a credit rating agency residing now in Brussels. She was at a friend’s house about to break her fast when the election results were revealed on Sunday night.
“To be honest, it was quite a bittersweet feeling [after the election results] because obviously looking at It from a positive perspective: yes, the far-right has not won the election, so it’s a good thing. But winning the election after fuelling the public opinion with hate speech and changing laws to restrict civil liberties – that’s not really a victory. I was actually a bit surprised when Macron won due to all the problems France has faced with his presidency, such as all the social reforms, the yellow vest movement and the government’s COVID-19 response.
The far-right has succeeded in really normalising their ideology and, in France, they really don’t perceive Marine Le Pen as a threat. A part of the population don’t seem to remember that her party has historically had Nazi associations and that it is widely supported by the really violent and radical.
The anti-separatism laws that would be put in place in France under Macron’s presidency are problematic. Even human rights groups and the Council of Europe have criticised and condemned them, stating they stigmaitise the Muslim community.
We have legislative elections in June to select deputies of the National Assembly. It’s important that there is a strong opposition to Macron from other left-wing candidates like Jean-Luc Mélenchon. I hope that Mélenchon or other left-wing candidates can get a majority seat. We also need to review our interpretations of secularity – for some, it is to have religious freedom and, for others, it is to ban religious expression from the public entirely which is unconstitutional. It would also be important to have an independent executive body that recognises Islamophobia and highlights how the laws in France impact Muslims negatively.”
Farah is a 19-year old French-Moroccan student currently studying for a semester abroad in London. Watching the election away from her native Marseille elevated her fears for the future of French Muslims.
“I was very anxious in the beginning to be honest, because as we’ve seen with Donald Trump in the US and Brexit in the UK, nothing is ever impossible anymore. The result was not a big surprise, because both parties had a big chance to be elected, but it was a relief. The outcome would have had a direct impact on me as a Muslim woman, as Le Pen’s key goal is to prioritise the white French population over children of immigrants like me, even though I have French nationality.
I would say it’s simplistic to say that Le Pen did well, when, in fact, many French people did not actually vote or cast a blank ballot. Around 28 per cent of the French population did not vote for either party and that puts Le Pen’s supposed “victory” at a much lower percentage (around 30 per cent) if you include the blank ballots.
Obviously, things would be much worse if Le Pen had won, but Macron has been here for five years already, so I can’t see any meaningful change happening going forward. For real change, Muslims need to stop being used as scapegoats and the narrative around them needs to change. We have so many issues in France, such as climate change, social class divides and women’s rights, but the focus is always on whether Muslims are assimilating enough in France.
Politicians must altogether stop assimilating basic characteristics of Islam as being extremism. Instead, we need to target the real issues that contribute to separatism, such as educational inequality, unemployment and poverty.”